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Air conditioning is 'exacerbating the climate crisis' but how many Europeans use it?

The number of air conditioning units in Europe has doubled since 1990.
The number of air conditioning units in Europe has doubled since 1990. Copyright Alexandre Lecocq
Copyright Alexandre Lecocq
By Marie Jamet
Published on Updated
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This article was originally published in French

Cooling machines are part of a vicious heating cycle.

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Europeans rely less on air conditioning than many other citizens around the world.

But figures show that its use has steadily increased on the continent as temperatures have risen due to human-caused climate change.

The number of air conditioning (AC) units in Europe has more than doubled since 1990, as the need for cooling buildings quadrupled, particularly in the north of the continent.

How much more are Europeans using AC and what is the environmental impact of the machines?

How common is air conditioning in Europe?

According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), published in 2018 and based on data from 2016, the European Union has far fewer air conditioning units than China or the United States.

It has fewer air conditioning units overall (96.5 million units) and fewer units per 1,000 inhabitants (around 20 units per 1,000 inhabitants).

In 2016, three countries alone accounted for two-thirds of the world's air conditioning units: China, the US and Japan.

In 2022, the penetration rate of air conditioning was 90 per cent in the US and only 19 per cent in Europe, according to data from the IEA.

However, the IEA forecast that 130 million units would be installed in the EU by 2023 and estimated that the number of units could quadruple on the continent by 2050.

The IEA report also found that Europe tends to have more air conditioning installed in commercial buildings than in private homes, whereas in the US, China and Japan it is the opposite.

However, air conditioning sales have progressed faster in the domestic market than in commercial buildings in the EU.

Getting AC installed often remains a small luxury. Alongside the cost of installation, the increase in energy bills once the air conditioning is up and running is an obstacle.

A study done in 16 countries by four researchers from the Universities of Berkeley in the US and Mannheim in Germany shows that, overall, the number of households that install air conditioning is higher in wealthier countries and is increasing more sharply among wealthier households.

That said, data from Eurostat shows air cooling currently accounts for just 0.5 per cent of final energy consumption by European households.

What is the environmental impact of air conditioning?

Air conditioning leads to higher energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and warmer air, particularly in cities, due to the urban heat island effect.

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According to the IEA, air conditioning is currently responsible for emitting around one billion tonnes of CO2 per year, out of a total of 37 billion tonnes emitted worldwide.

Clara Camarasa, an expert at the IEA, explains that air conditioning "can put immense pressure on electricity grids and accelerate greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating the climate crisis."

"Rapid growth in [air conditioning] requirements can lead to the use of inefficient, energy-intensive equipment," she adds.

"Air conditioners also often need large volumes of water, and some of them, with certain refrigerants, have a particularly warming potential, which is also harmful to the ozone layer."

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The need for cooling buildings quadrupled between 1979 and 2022 in the EU, particularly in the north of the continent.

In cities, the use of air conditioning accentuates the heat island effect. As well as contributing to global climate change, air conditioning systems cool buildings by releasing heat into urban areas, which store heat and release it again, particularly at night.

In France, a study by Cired (Centre international de recherche sur l'environnement et le développement), has simulated the combination of a heatwave and the level of air conditioning in Paris.

The team calculated that the temperature in the streets of Paris would rise by 2.4°C at night if all the city's air-conditioned buildings maintained an indoor temperature of 23°C during a nine-day 38°C heatwave.

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This heatwave would in turn prompt the use of air conditioning, in a vicious cycle that might suggest we should abandon building cooling for good.

Is air conditioning now a basic necessity?

In some regions, air conditioning has essential to stay cool and therefore safe and healthy.

"Some purists think we shouldn't use air conditioning at all, but I think it's just not feasible," says Robert Dubrow, director of the Center on Climate Change and Health at Yale University.

Access to air conditioning already saves tens of thousands of lives a year, a figure that is rising, according to a recent IEA report.

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Studies show that the risk of heat-related death is reduced by about 75 per cent for households with air conditioning.

Experts agree that the sensible course of action is not to reduce the use of air conditioning as such, but to promote more efficient systems and to give priority to insulating buildings and planting vegetation.

"Nature-based solutions are attracting increasing interest as a means of combating urban heat islands," says Camarasa. "Green spaces [and] green roofs can make cities more resilient, as a complement to efficient technologies."

She therefore believes that "prioritising reversible heat pumps and improving building insulation can help build more sustainable and resilient cities, while tackling the increased demand for energy."

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